Keith Comeaux is spending his vacation this week talking to his alma maters, Catholic High and LSU, telling once again the story of how he and a team of NASA engineers and scientists thrilled the world by landing a one-ton roving laboratory in a crater on Mars.
The Mars rover named Curiosity landed barely two months ago, on Aug. 6, and Comeaux, the flight director for the project, has been speaking to groups ever since. He appeared via Skype to fourth- and fifth-graders in late August at Copper Mill Elementary School.
On Wednesday, he wasn’t in Pasadena, Calif., at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but in the gym at Catholic High addressing a school assembly. Later that day he spoke to two physics classes at the all-boys high school he graduated from in 1985. On Thursday and Friday he will be talking to physics and engineering students at LSU.
“This is my way of giving back to the community,” explained Comeaux, a Baton Rouge native.
In his continuing work with the Mars rover, Comeaux and his team have been working during daylight hours on Mars, which lately has meant working many nights on Earth. It’s a pattern that will continue for another month, he said.
“My wife hates it,” he said.
Comeaux started his presentation with a short video that included a segment of him cheering after the official “touchdown” was signaled when the rover made its successful landing.
“It’s a little weird to see yourself jumping up and down on a Jumbotron in Times Square,” he said.
Comeaux said part of the reason for the jubilation is because during practice landings on Earth, the rover didn’t fare so well.
“Every single time, there was a glitch,” he said.
The rover landed in Gale Crater and is moving slowly, about a football field length a day, to the base of a 15,000-foot mountain called Mount Sharp. There, Comeaux said, they hope to find evidence of microbial life in the rocks. The crater was chosen because it’s thought to be the bottom of ancient lake that existed when Mars was a warm, wet planet, he said.
He said they’ve found water — “unfortunately, it’s frozen”— and bedrock, suggesting the former presence of water, but not microbial life as yet.
Comeaux said that his current job wasn’t his “dream job.”
“I wanted to fly and be a pilot,” he said.
Poor vision, a problem that he said could be corrected surgically today, prevented him from pursuing that path, so he ended up going into engineering and in 2006 took his current job with NASA.
He said the education he got at Catholic High, where he learned the “marriage of physics and calculus,” helped prepare him for the job with NASA.
He said current Catholic High students may have similar opportunities in 20 years when NASA, according to current timetables, attempts to fly a manned mission to Mars.
When Comeaux finished, he earned a standing ovation from the audience.
After the assembly, Comeaux spoke in more detail to two physics classes filled with Catholic High seniors. Students were still asking questions as the bell rang for the next class period.
Greg Sollie, Catholic High’s physics teacher, said Comeaux has a great demeanor and is an effective communicator. He said he also appreciated how Comeaux uses his own story as an inspiring example.
“He has a great ability to show the things that are important to do that will open doors to a better future,” Sollie said.